Last weekend, I drove home to Ann Arbor to throw a bridal shower for a close family friend. My mom and I dusted surfaces, folded napkins, and set place settings. We moved couches and arranged borrowed folding chairs. She mixed batter for pumpkin muffins and cherry scones, rolled thumbprint cookies, and iced orange cranberry bars. I peeled, sliced, and salted cucumbers and my mom buttered thin, square pieces of white bread for tea sandwiches, making sure to cut off the crusts, which went back into their plastic Pepperidge Farm bag, knotted and stowed away in the freezer for bread pudding—Maybe at Thanksgiving,” she mused, “when you’re all home again. That’ll be nice—something good.”
My mom’s bread pudding is tried and true comfort food: warm, spongy mush flecked with cinnamon and sprinkled with raisins. We’d scrape ourselves extra spoonfuls of the grainy brown sugar sauce that settled to the bottom of the pan, and pour ribbons of cream over the whole lovely thing, now decently swimming in a syrupy sweet puddle. Making bread pudding always felt thrifty, special, and a touch sacrilegious. The recipe was passed on to my mom from her own mother, whose depression-era sensibilities meant that nothing—not even a scrap of crust—was wasted. She’d make it on Mondays, using the crusts and cubes from communion Sunday the day before—leftovers brought home by my grandfather, an elder at their church. My mom continued the tradition: Sunday’s sacrament turned Monday’s sweet; a treat which carried with it a taste of holy-meets-slight-sacrilege, though any lingering questions or guilt could be tempered by a reminder of the virtue of thrift. Something used into something useful—something good.
Growing up, communion crusts didn’t always mean Monday evening dessert. My earliest memories of communion bring me back to the Campus Chapel at the University of Michigan. The congregation was a mix of undergrad and graduate students, older academics, and a few young families like mine. We’d stand in a tight circle at the front of the small stone church and the adults would pass each other loaves of homemade sourdough, followed by quiet sips of wine from a thick ceramic goblet. I was young—three or four—but knew this was something sacred. The adults exchanged words: the body of Christ, broken for you. I interpreted that you as in, for me, but not yet. Yet came in fifteen minutes, after the wine had been sipped and the announcements made. Following the service, we’d head downstairs—the adults would choose a mug from the wall of mismatched mugs, and pour themselves hot coffee, and we would dive into the leftover sourdough, tearing big chunks from the loaf, set aside just for the kids. I recall aromas: the bitter warm bite of the coffee mixing with the sour tang of the bread and that damp, slightly moldy smell of the shag green carpet. Let the little children come to me; me—the body of Christ, Christ, broken for you. Sticky small hands reaching into moist, gummy insides. We’d come back for more, until all that was left was the hollow crust—He is risen—something good.
When I was a bit older, we attended a different church. I was seven and shy and missed Sundays in the cozy basement with the shag green carpet. My dad was a church elder and every so often, it’d be his job to prepare communion. Saturday evening, he’d pick up a container of Welch’s grape juice and two loaves of the white, spongy bread with the sesame seed crusts (according to my mom, the kind that “held up better”). He’d spend twenty minutes or so slicing the crusts from the bread and cubing the rest, saving back the crusts in their plastic bag. On Sunday morning, the elders quietly passed communion plates down rows of pews. First small, spongy squares of bread, followed by tiny thimble glasses of juice. I’d get nervous every time the shiny silver plate came by me: assist in the pass-off, but not in the partaking. The body of Christ, broken for you—for me, but not yet. Yet came in fifteen minutes, after the service when I could retreat to the church basement and avoid talking to the other kids my age. I loved communion Sundays, because it meant I had something to do following the service. We’d tip the remaining thimblefuls of juice down the sink while sipping paper cups of grape juice poured from the Welch’s container kept in the stainless steel industrial refrigerator. Any extra bread cubes, we’d take home to add to our plastic bag of crusts. Monday brought sesame seed-flecked bread pudding and a question: “Why, Dad, are the communion plates passed only by dads?” A sweet, spongy bite meeting the righteous curiosity rising in my throat, something honest in that question—something good.
A number of years later, there was a season that I didn’t—wouldn’t—eat bread. This is Christ’s body, broken for you. During communion, I’d look for the smallest square and the slightest thimbleful of juice. I’d estimate the calories and feel an immense sense of shame over the fact that communion—this symbol of grace, was so difficult to accept—this is my body, broken. Do this in remembrance of me. These days, that feeling is only a lingering memory—something good.
A few years ago, we all found ourselves home over Christmas break. My brothers were Calvin students, and I’d spent the last months readjusting to life back in Grand Rapids, this time working at Calvin. It was lovely to be home, and my parents had taken special care for things to be just so—cozy and familiar. However, we’d changed, and being back home made that more apparent. Jonathan had grown out his hair, sported secondhand sweaters, and shared about sustainable agriculture, animal ethics, and compassionate living. We joked together over his previous love of hamburgers and buttercream frosting as my mom pulled out plastic bags of frozen sandwich crusts and communion cubes. This time, margarine in place of butter, flaxseed and almond milk to replace eggs and and cream. A new tradition, perhaps—though still special, with a touch of sacrilege, tempered by thrift (and now) some extra compassion. Sitting around the table together, we knew this was something holy—something good.
1 C. brown sugar
3 slices bread, buttered and cubed
3 eggs, beaten
1 C. milk
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. maple flavoring
Place brown sugar on top of double boiler, add bread crumbs, then add beaten eggs, milk, and flavorings. Don’t stir. Cover for one hour, keep over low heat. Cover with cream or whipped cream or bake at 325 degrees for one hour in a casserole dish.
Paula Manni (‘13) works as Arts Programming Coordinator and is an arts advocate for the Calvin College community. She enjoys throwing parties on the side, and fills in the gaps with wine making, music listening, museum visiting, and Michigan exploring.